Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autism is range of neurological disorders that involve some degree of difficulty with communication and interpersonal relationship along with obsessions and repetitive behaviors. This developmental disorder doesn't just involve problems relating with others and interpersonal communication skills.
Kids with autism think differently than others. They often see words as pictures, shapes, or colors. They might hear sounds this way, too, or categorize them in odd ways. They might hear sounds in amplification or barely register them at all. Lights might be so offensive to these kids that they get headaches or might rock repetitively as they try to process this over-stimulation.
They often have fears that seem unreasonable to the rest of us, but to them, these fears are real. And sometimes, these fears can be debilitating. This is usually due to heightened sensitivity to visual and auditory stimuli.
These kids will usually pass vision and hearing tests, but still struggle to process visual and auditory information. Of course, this is because we actually see and hear in our brains and take in light with our eyes and sound through our ears.
This makes it difficult to navigate life, not to mention learning and academic pressures.
It's an Epidemic!
Autism is on the rise. It affects more boys than girls, and approximately 24.8 million people are affected with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) worldwide. Autism isn't affected by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background, and although there are some generalities we know that might cause autism, it is really a mystery as to the true causes.
More boys than girls are diagnosed with autism and we don't really know why this happens, either. As of 2018, one in fifty-nine is born with autism. That's nearly half the population! And sadly, schools focus on simply making these kids comfortable instead of giving them a program that will help their sensory and brain wiring differences. ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) is a type of therapy that can improve social, communication, and learning skills through positive reinforcement. Many experts consider ABA to be the gold-standard treatment for children with autism, but it only treats a student's behaviors. It doesn't go to the core of the problem and treat it.
Without Proper Treatment, Their Future is Bleak!
The sooner a child receives treatment for autism, the batter the chances for a normal and happy life. That's why we start our autism classes for three-year-olds who qualify for our program. To qualify, the child needs to be able to follow directions and focus long enough to complete simple activities.
Unfortunately, it's up to the parent to find programs that help, and there aren't a lot of useful and affordable programs available. It's too easy too let years pass without treatment and hope for the best. This is like waiting for a fire to put itself out! Especially when these kids can do so much! The goal for these children, like all kids is that they lead a normal and productive life.
About half of autistic adults are unemployed, and one third of those with high school diplomas may be unemployed. Among those on the spectrum who do find work, most are employed in sheltered settings working for wages below the national minimum. While employers state hiring concerns about productivity and supervision, experienced employers of adults with autism generally give positive reports of above average memory and orientation to detail. In addition, these employees show a high regard for rules and procedures.
Children with autism will often engage in repetitive behaviors such as lining up toys in a row or flapping their hands back and forth. The "flapping" behaviors are called stimming because the child is making an effort to stimulate her nervous system. Sometimes the child will engage in compulsive behaviors like repetitive hand washing. Routines can be a thing these kids will fall apart over. They crave routine in almost everything they do.
There can be a huge variance in the amount of stimming or obsessive compulsive behaviors a child with autism might engage in, depending on environmental factors, degree of the disorder, and how severe his sensory issues are.
Autistic children can display a multitude of repetitive behaviors. The Repetitive Behavior Scale-Revised (RBS-R) categorizes these behaviors as:
Stereotyped behaviors - repetitive movements such as body rocking, hand flapping, or head rolling
Compulsive behaviors - these are time consuming behaviors children with autism engage in to reduce anxiety. They might put items in a row or stack things one on top of the other. They might need to check to see that the door is locked over-and-over or wash their hands repeatedly.
Sameness - this is a resistance to change. Kids with autism might get upset if they miss their favorite cartoon or refuse to let the furniture be rearranged. They become rigid in their schedule to create order in their world.
Ritualistic behavior - this type of behavior is similar to sameness. The child has unvarying daily activities, such as foods he'll eat or clothes she'll wear. Once again, the child is trying to place order in a world that is chaotic and frightening.
Restricted interests - these kids will have fixations on one item or an intensity of focus on something. For instance, the child might be obsessive about trains or a single television program, toy, or game. Some kids like certain animals or events and can tell you almost every fact about them. These kids might carry a book about sharks with them everywhere they go or latch onto a toy like it's a lifeline.
Self-injury - some but not all autistic children engage in self-injurious behaviors. They might poke themselves in the eyes, bite their fingers, or bang their heads against a wall.
Degrees of Autism
Most people are aware that there are degrees of autism, that there is a giant spectrum and a child can fall anywhere on this continuum. This is what makes it difficult to treat autistic children. What works for one child might not work with another.
To make matters worse, autistic children will have one "learning sense" that is significantly stronger than the other. Through Lisa's work with autistic children, she found that autistic students who are nonverbal have a stronger visual sense. Those who can talk and communicate have a stronger auditory sense.
Another thing Lisa discovered when working with autistic children is that their visual processing skills needs to be strong before "plugging" in their auditory processing skills. Sometimes, it can take as long as a year of steady work to get a student up to speed in visual skill before the "miracle" of making strides in auditory processing skills occurs.
No matter what the student's primary learning sense is, the Harp Learning System self corrects for any differences each autistic student might have. Each skill in the program has a test, and if the student doesn't pass the test, she simply keeps practicing until she can pass the test. Of course, autistic students benefit from the brain integration exercises in the Harp Learning System where new neural pathways are built. The only difference between an autistic student and one with another learning disability is the amount of time spent on specific skills in building these new neural pathways in the brain.
Don't Push on These Kids!
More than any other learning disability, kids with autism live in a constant state of fight or flight. Because of this, you can't push on these kids. It just doesn't work. They might rebel by throwing a temper tantrum or they might retreat into themselves.
This doesn't mean that you can't have expectations and goals. This doesn't mean that you should let them sit in a room all day with an iPad or let them play video games hour after hour. These kids are smart and can learn. They just need a step-by-step process where they start with easy skills they can master, those sub-skills the Harp Learning System is rich in, then given the chance to slowly build those sub-skills into major skills.
Autistic kids are smart and will surprise you on what they can learn if given the right set of tools, a loving and nurturing environment, and structure. Kids with autism like to be given choices and they like to know what's expected of them. They like to know their routine will be fairly predictable and most of all...they love t be listened to!
Lisa explains, "Kids with autism are so much fun. They love to ell you about experiences they've had - both bad and good. If you are a good listener to these kids, you'll build trust with them and after that, magic happens!"
Mistreated and Misunderstood
Kids with autism are misunderstood. People think that they aren't smart, when in fact, they're often brilliant. Of course, since they are usually weak or overly sensitive in auditory and visual processing skills, they often score low on IQ tests. This sets them up for failure, because everyone thinks they aren't smart, when in fact, they are.
A child with autism has feelings. Even though they may not understand that others have feelings, they are often locked into their own set of feelings. If an autistic child feels like she can't trust you, then you won't make progress with her. She'll dig in her heels and refuse to do what asked.
These hyper-sensitive kids will go to the moon and back for you if you are trustworthy. They build bonds with their parents and their siblings, and will often choose a select few people out in their "world" to trust. At times, this can't be explained.
"It's like they can see right into your soul," Lisa explains. "Few people stop to think about what these kids might be going through. I'm amazed that many of them can get through a day as well as they can."
"These are fatigued learners who are often mistreated and misdiagnosed. They are usually placed on heavy ADD/ADHD medications in an effort to get them under control. This is so sad, because there's so much passion and life inside these kids if you can carefully unpeel their layers of frustration and mistreatment."
Kids on the spectrum have so much to say. They just want to be heard. They want to let you know what they've been through and want to share their unique talents and personalities with you. We need to listen to them and let them contribute, whether it's sharing facts about sharks or drawing beautiful pictures.
There's a Better Way
At Harp, we agree that ABA can be beneficial, but we also believe that kids with autism can learn to process visual and auditory information so that it isn't painful. We have been treating kids and adults with autism for twenty years with tremendous success. Children and teens who couldn't speak not only learned to talk and communicate but read, write, spell, and perform math computations and equations.
Autism can be treated. We do it every day. The only difference between treating a child with autism and those with other learning disabilities is the amount it takes for them to reach grade level success. At Harp, we have a level full of sub-skills that students with autism need to build a strong learning and communication foundation.
In addition, these kids need choices. They feel powerless in a world they don't understand and have a hard time navigating in. Can you imagine if you were dropped off on another planet where you didn't understand the language, the rules, or the system? And there were loud noises and bright lights, making it hard to navigate and understand what was expected of you? Do you think you'd have an easy time of it?
Kids on the spectrum need compassion. They need to be given choices. They need to know when they've done something right so they can keep doing it. They also need a sensible set of rules and a routine they can understand and predict.
"I've found most kids on the spectrum are eager to please once you build up a trust system with them. It's odd, but one component of that trust system is the follow-through," Lisa explains. "These kids will test you. If you tell them that their time is up for an activity and that you're going to take the blocks (or whatever it is) away, then you'd better take those blocks away."
The Scope of Autism
The problem with autism is that the scale is so large. There are children who are severe and others who are milder. Yet, they all get lumped into one category. Some kids are quite functional, like those with Asperger's Syndrome. Others are locked in a silent, lonely, fearful world.
We know these kids are intelligent, yet they are failing to communicate. They often scream in frustration or resort to stimming activities like rocking back and forth or flapping their hands. This is an effort to stimulate their senses.
The first large wave of adults with autism has passed through our society. Most are still living at home with their parents. But what is their future in the next few decades? Very few of these adults are receiving life skills or are being introduced into the job market. The horrible truth is that they'll be left to the state once their parents die if the funding isn't there for the to be cared for.
"These adults aren't going to live like Rain Man, if something isn't done. States don't have the funding to take proper care of the massive amounts of autistic adults we're getting ready to see," says Lisa. "As a society, we've put our heads in the sand thinking it's the parents' burden to provide for these autistic adults. We need massive programs for rehabilitation, life skills training, and a host of other skills to make these adults happy, contributing citizens. It can happen. We do it every day."
Symptoms of Autism
No response to name by six months
No eye-to-eye contact by six months
No babbling by twelve months
Not gesturing (pointing, waving, etc) by twelve months
Inability to say spontaneous phrases by twenty-four months
Loss of any language or social skill at any
Myths about Autism
Kids with autism aren't smart
Children with autism are behavior problems
If you have autism you can't understand what other people say
People with autism don't care about your feelings
Kids with autism are weird
Children with autism only care about one thing
People with autism are mentally ill
You can outgrow autism
Autism is caused by bad parenting
Insurance companies will pay for therapies for autistic children
People with autism lack empathy
Kids with autism are all the same
Truths about Autism
Kids with autism are smart. They just have a difficult time processing information. That doesn't make them dumb.
You don't outgrow autism but you can find therapies to help you process important sensory stimuli and learn social skills.
Autism isn't caused by bad parenting. Most parents of autistic children are patient, brave, and true champions for their children.
Like any kids, children with autism are not all the same. Each child has unique interests, likes, gifts, and abilities.
People with autism don't lack empathy. Sometimes, they have too much empathy and actually shut down because it is overwhelming. At other times, kids with autism just have a difficult time reading social cues or understanding that others might be making judgment calls against them.
Not all children on the spectrum are behavior problems. Some of the best-behaved children we know have autism. Some kids with autism get frustrated and react, often out of fear or frustration, to their environment.
Autism is not a mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Sometimes, like with anybody, a person with autism will have a mental illness in conjunction with autism, but that is a separate diagnosis.
People with autism have an amazing ability to understand what is being said, even if they can't speak. Can you imagine how frustrating this would be?
Kids with autism are not weird. At times they do things that others don't understand, but with education and awareness, people can understand that these children are simply reacting to their environment the best way they know how to.
Children with autism don't just care about one thing. Sometimes, these kids will hyper-focus on one thing, such as trains or panthers. They, like anyone else, have an interest in something and enjoy learning and talking about it.
Only recently and in 48 states in America, have insurance companies kicked in money for treatment and therapy for kids with autism. Still, the onus for the expense is on the parents, whether it's just the deductible or the full cost of chosen therapies. Even with insurance, if a medical doctor, psychologies, speech therapist, or occupational therapist isn't on staff, the therapies don't usually qualify for insurance companies, and that leaves the parent with the bulk of the cost of treatment.
Sadly, there does not seem to be much help for autistic children. Parents are exhausted from the caretaking of these children and do not know where to turn. Many feel like there is nowhere to turn and feel like there is no hope for their children.
If the brain and the senses are dealt with, then progress can be made. The first thing we do at the Harp Learning Institute is to strengthen the autistic student's visual processing skills. Once those are in place, then we tackle more difficult memory building and auditory skills. With time and commitment, we can give your autistic child a set of tools that will last for life. Tools that help him process auditory and visual information. Tools that will help her socialize with others. Tools to help him look people directly in the eye. Tools that will give her a strong sensory basis so she can quit looping and stimming and obsessing.
Our students on the spectrum make tremendous progress, a multitude of them surpassing parents' and doctors' dreams and diagnoses.
Meet Lorenzo; Find Hope!
Lorenzo came to us at sixteen years-old. He was nonverbal and couldn't read, write, or perform basic math equations. He'd been going to public schools since kindergarten with little or no special help or progress. When we met with him, he wasn't even receiving speech therapy!
We set right to work at building a learning foundation for Lorenzo. Since he had so many learning and performance gaps, it was a slow process. But right away, we knew two things. Lorenzo was smart and he was eager to learn. Nobody had taught him in the right way before.
Lorenzo still comes to see us twice a week. He's graduated from high school and works in his family's grape orchards. He is reading at a seventh grade level, is working at a fourth grade math level, and can write basic paragraphs. Even better, he talks! He'll look you directly in the eye and he'll shoot you an infectious grin.
Out of all our tens of thousands of students who have crossed our path over the past twenty years, we've chosen Lorenzo as our Student Spotlight. At every session, Lorenzo has given 100% - or more- and he's always shown up on time. His family has arranged for make-up sessions when he's been sick or on vacation. Impressive!